Defendants in Second Circuit Climate Change Case Seek Cert

Several electric power companies have asked the Supreme Court to review a Second Circuit ruling that Connecticut and several other states may seek greenhouse gas emissions reductions under a federal common law nuisance claim.  American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. 8/2/10). The petition for certiorari was filed by American Electric Power Co., Duke Energy Corp., Southern Co., and Xcel Energy Inc.

Readers may recall that in 2004, two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, sued six electric power corporations that own and operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants, seeking abatement of defendants' alleged ongoing contributions to the "public nuisance of global warming." Plaintiffs claimed that global warming, to which the defendants allegedly contributed as large emitters of carbon dioxide, is causing, and will continue to cause serious harm affecting human health and natural resources.

Because of the procedural posture (motion to dismiss), the court did not really describe the other side of the story, but readers of MassTortDefense know that change is what the climate is always doing as a result of the planet's orbital eccentricities, axial wobbles, solar brightness changes, cosmic ray flux, and multiple other factors. There are numerous plausible terrestrial drivers of climate changes too. While global warming is a serious topic worthy of scientific study and political discussion, plaintiffs' alleged "consensus" on this issue ignores the fact that global mean temperature is only one part of climate, and may not even be the best metric. Moreover, the most important driver of the greenhouse effect are water vapor and clouds. Carbon dioxide is only about 0.038% of the atmosphere, and humans are responsible for only about 3.4% of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually, the rest of it being natural.  When thinking about "global climate" changes, we have to be cognizant of the fact that humans have been trying to measure the temperature consistently only since the1880s, during which time even advocates think the world may have warmed by about +0.6 °C -- which is less than the margin of error on our ability to measure the Earth's temperature. 

Anyway, plaintiffs brought these actions under the federal common law of nuisance or, in the alternative, state nuisance law, to force defendants to cap and then reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The district court correctly held that plaintiffs' claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints. On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the political question doctrine does not bar adjudication of their claims; that they had standing to assert their claims; that they had properly stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; and that their claims were not displaced by any federal statutes.

In a lengthy opinion, the court of appeals held that the district court erred in dismissing the complaints on political question grounds; that all of plaintiffs had standing; that the federal common law of nuisance governs their claims; that plaintiffs had stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; that their claims were not displaced.  In a very minimalist interpretation of what is needed for standing, the Second Circuit distinguished multiple precedents of the Supreme Court which held that to have standing a plaintiff must allege an injury that is concrete, direct, real, and palpable -- not abstract. Injury must be particularized, personal, individual, distinct, and differentiated -- not generalized or undifferentiated. The Supreme Court has further stated that the asserted injury must be actual or imminent, certainly impending and immediate --not remote, speculative, conjectural, or hypothetical. The court of appeals rejected defendants challenge that these vague contentions of future injury at some unspecified future date are not the kind of “imminent” injury required. The court also gave short shrift to the argument that plaintiffs could neither isolate which alleged harms will be caused by defendants' emissions, nor allege that such emissions would alone cause any future harms. 

This petition raises the important, recurring question whether states and private plaintiffs have standing to seek, and whether federal common law provides authority for courts to impose, a non-statutory, judicially created regime for setting caps on greenhouse gas emissions based on vague and indeterminate nuisance concepts.  It also asks the Court to decide whether judges, in addition to Congress and the EPA, may regulate greenhouse gas emissions at the behest of states and private parties and, if so, under what standards.  Under the Second Circuit's ruling, a single judge could set emissions standards for regulated utilities across the country—or, as here, for just that subset of utilities that the plaintiffs have arbitrarily chosen to sue. Judges in subsequent cases could set different standards for other utilities or industries, or conflicting standards for these same utilities.

While the Second Circuit called this an ordinary tort suit, this litigation seeks to transfer to the judiciary nearly standardless authority for some of the most important and sensitive economic, energy, and social policy issues presently before the country.  Thus, at stake is the financial health and security of numerous sectors of the economy. Indeed, virtually every entity and industry in the world is responsible for some emissions of carbon dioxide and is thus a potential defendant in climate change nuisance actions under the theory of this case. The threat of litigation, and the indeterminate exposure to monetary and injunctive relief that it entails, could substantially impede and alter the future investment decisions and employment levels of all affected industries, and ultimately every sector of the economy.

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